Commentary

Good first impression for Sullinger

First-round pick shows NBA potential in summer league debut with Celtics

Updated: July 9, 2012, 9:12 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Jared Sullinger carries himself a bit like a lottery pick despite his draft day slide. Putting on a Boston Celtics jersey for the first time Monday at the Orlando Summer League, he said his hope was to blend into the scenery.

His offensive eruption in the second half blew his cover.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesJared Sullinger scored 20 points -- including 14 in the second half -- in his debut in a Celtics uniform.

Sullinger scored a game-high 20 points, 14 of which came after the intermission, while adding six rebounds and a block as the Celtics topped the Oklahoma City Thunder 73-65 in the team's summer league opener at the Amway Center.

Like Boston's other two rookies, Sullinger came off the bench and had an up-and-down first half, but finished strong in the second half, shouldering the offensive load while showcasing an all-around game (from banking home a running hook shot in the lane, to drilling a 3-pointer) and making a strong first impression.

"I didn't want to come into the game thinking like, 'It's all about me, it's all about me,'" said Sullinger, who was pegged as a high lottery pick until concerns about his back allowed him to slide to the Celtics at No. 21 in last month's NBA draft. "Playing all my life, where everything goes through you, I didn't want to be like that today because I have some teammates that can really play. So I was just trying to feel it out in the first half and, the second half, we were falling behind, so I decided to step up and try to score the basketball."

The biggest question about the 6-foot-9 Sullinger coming out of Ohio State was a bulging disc in his back. The other issue was whether his below-the-rim game would translate at the NBA level.

It's only one summer league game, but there's a lot to be encouraged by after Monday's effort. Sullinger showed he can work around the hoop, shoot with range and put the ball on the floor. More than anything, he showed an ability to score in traffic, muscling home shots around the basket and drawing contact (he made all seven free throws he attempted).

For that particular talent, he thanks his older brothers, Julian and J.J., who took turns pummeling him on trips toward the hoop as a kid.

"When you have two brothers like Julian and J.J. Sullinger that, when you go through the air on concrete and they throw you to the ground and you've got scrapes all over your arms, you learn to concentrate on making the shots instead of just scraping your arm," Sullinger said. "Every time I'd cry, they'd yell at me because I was always worried about the scab or something, instead of worrying about making the shot. When you've got two brothers like that, there's no choice but to make the shots."

And at what age did that harassment begin?

"Early age; probably like 5," admitted Sullinger. "Hey, they trained me well. I owe them a lot."

Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, will be thanking them soon as well if Sullinger can develop his game. He will be giving up a lot of size trying to play the frontcourt positions in the NBA -- and Ainge made no secret they expect him to play center at times -- but that is clearly not going to detour him from hanging out near the hoop.

"He's just a gamer; he knows how to play the game," said Celtics assistant coach Ty Lue, who is in charge of the Orlando summer league squad. "Guys can be taller and more athletic, but he just knows how to play. … We wouldn't have won the game without him today."

Added Lue: "That's the kind of IQ you've got to have to play on this team with [head coach Doc Rivers] and the veteran guys that we have, so he'll fit in good."

Carving out a role as a rookie is no easy task, but the Celtics have potential to be thin up front, which could open doors for both Sullinger and fellow first-round pick Fab Melo (2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks over 14 minutes in his debut Monday).

Sullinger's agent, David Falk, said last week that he doesn't want his client -- once pegged to be a top-five or -seven pick in the draft -- to play with a chip on his shoulder. No, he wants him to play with a boulder.

Sullinger is aware of the naysayers and wants to showcase his game and prove those doubters -- including the GMs that passed on him -- wrong. He says there's more to his game than we saw at the college level.

"I can handle the ball a little bit, I can pass the ball, I can shoot the ball," Sullinger said. "There's a lot of things I can do. And it's about me being more comfortable doing it. The more I do it, the better I'll do it."

Asked again about giving up size to some of the centers in the league, Sullinger just smiled and said, "That's fun. That's always fun. You get to bang around in the post with your back to the basket. You get to guard someone taller than you. It's a challenge."

And at least at this level there's just hardwood below you, not the concrete that J.J. and Jared used to pound him into. How could anything be harder than concrete?

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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